AS VEGAS — The bullets are still there.
For the dozens of people who remain hospitalized in Las Vegas from the worst mass shooting in modern U.S. history, the onslaught isn’t over. The pain lingers. They remain haunted by the uncertainty of their recovery.
“My fear is that I won’t progress, you know. I want to be able to walk again. I want to be able to function normally,” said Michael Caster, who was paralyzed in the shooting. “I’m happy to be alive, that I got out of there, but I want to have a good life going forward, too.”
The hospital worker from the Palm Springs, Calif., area is one of about 45 people still hospitalized in four Las Vegas hospitals after the shooting that left 58 people dead and more than 500 wounded, most with gunshots.
Loved ones linger at their bedside, offering comfort and a familiar face in an unfamiliar place. They, too, face challenges in caring for family members away from home.
The Oct. 1 shooting left the world grieving for those who died, in awe of the ordinary people and the first responders who took heroic life-saving actions, and mystified over why gunman Stephen Paddock perched himself on the 32nd floor of the Mandalay Bay casino-hotel tower and unleashed more than 1,000 bullets on an outdoor country music festival concert site.
About a third of the wounded remain in critical condition nearly two weeks later. Grateful to have survived, they and their families must face the reality that the recovery will be difficult, and, for some, incomplete.
Dr. Sean Dort, a trauma surgeon and trauma center medical director at the Dignity Health-St. Rose Dominican Hospital’s Siena campus, said many of his patients have life-changing injuries.
“The longer you are in critical condition, the higher chance of poor outcome,” Dort said. “But as long as they are continuing to get better and not worse, I don’t mind which day it is.”
Caster, 41, plans to leave Sunrise Hospital and Medical Center this week after being shot through his left side at the Route 91 Harvest Festival on the Las Vegas Strip. The bullet blew through his lung, near his heart, and either it or a bone fragment ended up in his spine. He has lost all feeling and function from the waist down.
The fragment is still there, too risky to remove. Caster is eager to start a two-month program at a Colorado hospital specializing in spinal injuries.
He’s calm, even a bit reserved, yet smiles broadly and easily in lighter moments, like when talking about his lukewarm taste for country music. Caster attended the festival with his girlfriend and a group of friends.
He pauses with emotion when reflecting on the road ahead and the frightening prospect that he may never walk again. His demeanor turns from laid-back to grim.
“There’s no way of really telling, so we’ll just kind of take it day by day,” he said. “I got to stay positive, you know. Pray. Hope for the best. That’s what we’re going to do.”
Around the corner at Sunrise, which saw the most patients as the closest hospital to the shooting scene, Regina Fowler, 82, hopes her son will recover enough to return to his job as a firefighter.
Doctors told Kurt Fowler, 41, that it could take a year for him to walk again after losing 2 inches (51 millimeters) of bone from the bullet that shattered his lower right leg. The Lake Havasu, Ariz., man will likely have to return for treatment to Las Vegas — more than two hours from where he lives with his wife and three kids. His elderly mother hopes he’ll be able to get rides from his colleagues.
“All he wants is just to be able to walk, go back to work and take care of his family,” his mother said. “He wants to go home.”
For now, Regina Fowler, who lives in Las Vegas, said she’s just focused on being there for her youngest son, the baby of the family. His spirits lift when people visit, but he doesn’t want them to stay too long. And he doesn’t like sleeping alone in the hospital at night.
“He called me last night and just said, ‘Mommm,’ and I said, ‘Yeah, I’ll be there,'” she said with a sigh. “I try to stay really strong around him.”
As for Caster, he’s thankful his support network has also been well-cared-for. His girlfriend, sister, brother-in-law, and parents who have come to Las Vegas to be with him have been aided by local businesses that provided them free hotel rooms and food while they focus on him.
The night of the shooting, Caster’s girlfriend found the help that got him to the hospital. As he floated in and out of consciousness, he remembers people fleeing the scene telling her to save herself. They told her someone would come back to find him.
Caster grows emotional again talking about her, before smirking and noting a lot of people are telling him it’s time to get married.
“She’s never left me,” Caster said.
— Sally Ho